UK Centre for Medical Research and Innovation (UKCMRI) - Science and Technology Committee Contents

7  Safety and security

124. Siting the UKCMRI which will contain biological research facilities in central London was likely, in our view, to raise concerns about safety. From the outset of the inquiry we were determined to examine the risk assessment arrangements, to satisfy ourselves that the site was going to be suitably safe.

Biological hazards

125. Biological hazards, also known as biohazards, include infectious agents and hazardous biological materials that pose a threat to the health of living organisms, primarily that of humans. There are four levels of biohazard, Level 1 being minimum risk and Level 4 being extreme risk. The Medical Research Council's (MRC) National Institute for Medical Research (NIMR) at Mill Hill currently carries out experiments up to Level 4. The UKCMRI research programme will continue the work carried out at the NIMR and at CR-UK's London Research Institute (LRI). The infectious agents that require high levels of containment, currently studied at NIMR, include influenza, malaria, tuberculosis and HIV. The NIMR has been the home of the World Health Organization Influenza Centre (WIC) since 1948 and receives samples of flu viruses from hospitals around the world to analyse them and make recommendations on the composition of influenza vaccines, helping to understand and predict the susceptibilities of new strains of virus (such as swine flu) to medicines such as Tamiflu and Relenza.[191]

126. The UKCMRI consortium stated in its evidence that "all work on viruses and bacteria will be carried out at the appropriate level of containment in state-of-the-art custom-designed laboratories".[192] The following table summarises the safety conditions required for the containment facilities and work planned to be carried out at the UKCMRI.

Table 5: Containment levels and safety conditions at UKCMRI
Containment level
Safety conditions
- Restricted access laboratories with dedicated basins for hand-washing at the exit and safety cabinets may be required for some working
- Laboratories are secure and accessible only through an airlock

- Flooring and benches are impervious to water and resistant to chemicals

- Laboratories are under negative pressure such that air flows in from clean areas and is extracted to the atmosphere through special high efficiency particulate air filters

- Work is carried out in safety cabinets to protect workers and the environment

- All waste is treated before it leaves the area either by heat or a suitable disinfectant

- Written management procedures are required  

- Staff must be properly trained

- Procedures are required to deal with any foreseeable emergency

- Walls as well as floor and benching should be impervious

- Laboratories are under higher negative pressure, and that heat treatment is applied to all liquid and solid waste including shower water.

- Certain work is required to be carried out in closed safety cabinets

- Workers are subject to higher standards of training and more frequent assessments.

The UKCMRI will not work on Human Hazard Group 4 agents.

Source: UKCMRI and MRC supplementary evidence.[193]

127. Professor Savill, from the MRC, explained that Containment level 3+ was "not a formal classification but has been used to indicate enhanced control measures in level 3 containment facilities."[194]

The risks

128. The local MP, Rt Hon Frank Dobson, considered that bio-insecurity from accidental discharges and the possibility of terrorism were the major outstanding concerns of local people.[195] St Pancras and Somers Town Planning Action (SPA) described their fears as:

  • an escape of pathogens into the atmosphere, or of infectious material via the water table into adjacent railway tunnels; and
  • the laboratory attracting international terrorists or animal rights activists that cause an escape through their actions.[196]

129. The UKCMRI will house a small number of live animals for experimentation, mostly mice, but also fish and flies.[197] Sir Paul Nurse, Chief Executive and Director of the UKCMRI, told us that one third of the Centre's animal facilities will be located at Cancer Research UK's (CR-UK) Clare Hall laboratory at South Mimms, Hertfordshire.[198] Experimentation on live animals brings, regrettably, a risk of disruption by extremists prepared to break the law. The SPA was concerned that a "demonstration by animal rights activists could damage the building and result in a spillage".[199]

130. The UKCMRI at St Pancras would not be unique. There are a number of facilities in central London that already accommodate many secure laboratories in hospitals and university buildings. Professor Savill indicated to us that there are 781 containment level 3 facilities licensed in the UK, and John Cooper, UKCMRI's Chief Operating Officer, explained that such laboratories were "common and essential facilities in modern medical research, and are very safe."[200] Sir Paul Nurse told us that, on level 3 biohazard containment:

    there are already about a hundred facilities like that in London. There is nothing different about that. I understand that local residents are concerned, but if that was not allowed to go ahead, you would close nearly every hospital in London.[201]

131. Rob Inglis, SPA Press Officer, accepted that "that British scientists have an exemplary safety record. This is what I have been told by UKCMRI, but they do not have a perfect safety record."[202] Robert Henderson, a local resident, stated that:

    security issues alone should prevent the research centre being built. The centre would be a prime terrorist target because there are three iconic sites in the closest proximity—the Eurostar terminal, the British Library and the UKCMRI itself and the nature of the work to be undertaken at the Centre.[203]

132. The outbreak of the Foot and Mouth Disease Virus from the Institute for Animal Health's Pirbright Laboratory in 2007 highlighted the dangers involved with handling highly virulent materials. The SPA told us that a similar leak of dangerous pathogens from UKCMRI would leave a "possibility of an infection spreading through the local close, dense population, and through the railway tunnels at St Pancras International."[204] The Guardian reported in April 2008 that "over the past 10 years, the HSE has brought five separate prosecutions for severe failings in safety measures at universities, research institutes and labs attached to hospitals. Imperial College London was prosecuted twice in 1998 and fined a total of £45,000". The article quoted Dr Ellen Nisbet, a malaria researcher at Cambridge University:

    Accidents happen. It doesn't matter if you are driving a car or working in a lab, one day something will happen, we are extremely well trained in what to do. If we were not you would probably see a lot more accidents. But if an accident does happen, it could be catastrophic. You just have to make sure it does not happen or locate the lab in an area where it is not so catastrophic if it does happen.[205]

133. In its written evidence UKCMRI Ltd said that "risk assessment and risk management is integral to the entire project," and explained that "comprehensive risk registers are maintained and reviewed monthly by the UKCMRI Executive team and by the Construction Project Board."[206] The UKCMRI also pointed out that the planning application had contained a Security Management Plan highlighting the potential security risks: the biological research facilities; the containment facilities; regulatory compliance and licensing requirements; site deliveries and collections; public safety and security; police and community liaison; counter-terrorism response; domestic extremism response; security during construction; the adoption of "Secured by Design" principles; the mitigation of potential security risks; crisis management; and business continuity planning.[207]

134. UKCMRI Ltd explained that following "extensive consultation" the Metropolitan Police had confirmed "that there are adequate resources in place to manage any protests and that the safety and security of the institute have been the subject of considerable scrutiny by the relevant services" and that the "Crime Prevention Officer is satisfied that the building has taken into account the principles of designing out crime."[208] The safety of the building would be governed by "very stringent regulations" with which the UKCMRI "will fully comply".[209] The UKCMRI said that both the MRC at NIMR and CR-UK at London Research Institute (LRI) had "exemplary track records in ensuring the safety of their research for staff, visitors and the general public."[210]

135. Professor Savill told us that health and safety drove the accepted UKCMRI vision of the single governance, single director and single structure.[211] Sir Paul Nurse, who has overall responsibility for the UKCMRI's health and safety, said that "the attention to security and containment in the design of the building and the thinking about it has been exemplary".[212] John Cooper explained that the UKCMRI:

    have had a very thorough health and safety risk assessment of every single room in this building. Any issues that have come up have been incorporated in the design. Likewise, we have carried out a security risk assessment of all vulnerable areas of the building, and those have been incorporated in the design. We have taken great care to get this right.[213]

136. Another concern raised by a local resident was the security status of the low paid staff, such as security guards, cleaners and maintenance workers. Robert Henderson, a local Somers Town resident, was concerned that the cleaning staff:

    pose a particular security problem. To begin with they are low paid and hence subject to the problems of poor morale and vulnerability to bribery. [...] they go everywhere and work at night, generally with little supervision because they work when security is at its lightest.[214]

Sir Mark Walport, Chief Executive of the Wellcome Trust, replied that:

    there are no new principles for UKCMRI than for any of the other laboratories in London, around the country and in any city. The answer is there will be proper HR procedures for all staff.[215]

137. Professor Savill told us that there have been a number of scare stories in the press. He said that local residents had:

    been ill served by some very alarmist reporting that we will all have seen in the media concerning the potential biohazard that the research we anticipate UKCMRI doing would confer on the area.[216]


138. We appreciate the concerns of local residents and others about the safety and security of the UKCMRI and we do not doubt that there is a risk of disruption by, for example, animal rights extremists or the subversion of staff at the UKCMRI. These are not, however, unique threats faced by the UKCMRI. The four partners in the consortium, UKCMRI Ltd and the Government have indicated that they have carried out the necessary risk assessments and have risk management arrangements in place for the constructing, fitting out and operation the UKCMRI. On the basis of the evidence we have taken we conclude that these risks can be managed and the concerns about safety and security are not grounds for moving the UKCMRI to another site.

191   Ev 41 Back

192   As above Back

193   Ev 41; Ev 51, para 3 Back

194   Ev 51, para 3 Back

195   Ev w25, para 8 Back

196   Ev 52 Back

197   Q 128 Back

198   Q 120 Back

199   Ev 55, para 4c Back

200   Q 49; Ev 41 Back

201   Q 126 Back

202   Q 69 Back

203   Ev w2, para 2 Back

204   Ev 54, para 4a Back

205   "Coming soon?", The Guardian, 22 April 2008, Back

206   Ev 40, para 35 Back

207   Ev 40, para 37 Back

208   Ev 40, para 38 Back

209   Ev 40, para 39 Back

210   As above Back

211   Q 51 Back

212   Q 126 Back

213   Q 129 Back

214   Ev w2 Back

215   Q 55 Back

216   Q 47 Back

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© Parliamentary copyright 2011
Prepared 25 May 2011